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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Overture Center looks to the future
Changing market, new plan raise hopes of long-term success
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Tom Carto: 'We hadn't proven ourselves yet.'
Tom Carto: 'We hadn't proven ourselves yet.'
Credit:Todd Hubler

A Connecticut-based consultant, AMS Planning and Research, last week presented a five-year plan for the struggling Overture Center. It calls for more Broadway shows, more ticket sales and more fundraising to make the arts center financially stable.

The report comes as the Overture is going through a major restructuring that would erase more than $28 million in debt, give ownership to the city and transfer management to a nonprofit group.

Why couldn't the current managers of the Overture Center find the ticket sales and donations to make the center a success?

Tom Carto, Overture CEO, says the center's fortunes are improving as the market matures. This year, Overture is now considered a "full-week" market for Broadway shows, meaning it can book larger, newer shows for longer periods. It had been getting older, split-week shows.

"We hadn't proven ourselves yet as a full-week market," Carto says. "We took the leap last season to go to full weeks. That was a bet on the producers' part and a bit of a risk for us, but it worked out."

The Lion King's success last spring means Madison will get Wicked, Young Frankenstein, Legally Blonde and the 25th anniversary run of Les Misérables for full-week stretches this season. For the 2010-11 season, Overture had a goal of 2,800 Broadway season subscriptions but has already sold more than 5,000, which Carto calls "a definite sign that Broadway will be very successful this year."

According to Carto, Overture is also getting better at fundraising. The AMS report said Overture needs to bring in about $1.5 million in the form of private donations, grants and sponsorship each year. It's only been collecting $700,000 to $800,000, but Carto says the figure is climbing. The number of people who donated $1,000 grew from 30 in 2008 to 120 last year. "Now that the debt has been settled we're seeing an even greater success in the fundraising," he says.

Linda Baldwin, chairwoman of the Madison Cultural Arts District (and associate publisher of Isthmus), says the steps now being taken could have worked before, but the management structure made it difficult. She's optimistic about the future: "A lot of work has been done to show that this new model is sustainable."

Big plans for Overture area?

The Overture Center wouldn't exist without the generosity of Jerry Frautschi, whose original $205 million donation allowed it to be built. This summer, Frautschi was once again the man of Overture's hour when he helped put together a deal to erase the center's debt - and led a group that kicked in $15 million to make it happen.

But the city's Landmarks Commission is worried about what Frautschi may be planning for buildings nearby. A group known as Central Focus LLC has in recent years bought several properties on and around the 100 block of State Street for millions more than their assessed value. (See, 12/10/2009.)

Many believe Frautschi is behind the group, providing the cash. He did not return a call for comment. Says Overture Foundation president George Austin, "Whether [Frautschi] is involved or not, I don't think you'll get an answer."

The only person listed in connection with Central Focus, developer Marty Rifken, has refused to say what the plans are for the buildings or who his partners are.

Landmarks member Stu Levitan is worried. "I'm afraid there may be an effort to take down some or all of that block for a plaza for the Overture Center," he says. "Regardless of where the money comes from, someone's got a plan for that block. You don't spend two or three times the value of a building just because you want to operate a shoe store. Clearly Marty Rifken and parties unknown have big plans."

The landmarks ordinance doesn't allow for protection of most of the buildings on that block, which Levitan calls "an architectural Disneyland. You've got four or five distinct styles in one block. Trying to preserve it as a historic district is something we should have done years ago."

Levitan doesn't see the "political will" to make it a historic district. But he thinks officials need to take notice. "This block is under threat," he says. Demolishing buildings on it "potentially changes the whole fabric of State Street and the Square."

Cashiers plead for their jobs

Automation, long the trend in parking, is expected to eliminate almost all of the city of Madison's 34 parking cashiers in the next six years. But those cashiers are fighting back, arguing that they do far more than take people's money.

In a letter to the city's Parking and Transit Committee, the employees' union AFSCME writes, "Cashiers assist both their customers and the general public in the downtown area. They supply directions, answer questions about events and businesses and aid customers."

Bill Knobeloch, the city's parking operations manager, agrees that cashiers provide a valuable service and says he'd have them on each parking level of every ramp if possible. "People are good, but they're expensive," he says. "How much do we want to pay for the service?"

The city is getting more competition from the private sector, he says. "If we're the last ones to go [automated], we won't be able to compete."

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